Kaylee Mulholland Part IV


Part IV: Literature Review

Which came first, the leader or the follower? Does the answer to this question even matter? Leaders and followers have been a topic of discussion even before these terms were coined. While almost anything regarding leadership and followership can be disputed, there are several questions that many researchers find puzzling.

Are leaders or followers more important?

In an Unplugged Management article, Alvesson and Blom say, “leadership relations without followers do not make sense, and the absence of the latter undermines or even precludes leadership” (267). The relationship between leaders and followers is symbiotic; they benefit each other, and survival without the other is made difficult or nearly impossible. To answer the question of “Are leaders or followers more important?” the correct answer would be neither. Both leaders and followers are equally important to the success of society. Colette Hoption, a professor of management at Seattle University, argues that “followers are partners in leadership” and that the relationship between the two has “bidirectional influence” (129). This means that followers guide leaders just as much as leaders guide followers. The belief that leaders are superior to followers is founded in false connotations and misunderstanding of the definition of leader (Hoption 129). The positive stigma surrounding leaders creates a negative connotation of followers. People often believe that followers are passive or dependent; however, this is not the case (Hoption 129). Both leaders and followers are important to the same degree.

Can followers be leaders and vice versa?  

The distinction between leaders and followers becomes more blurred each day. Alvesson and Blom, argue that leaders and followers are not formal positions (267). Instead, “leadership needs to be considered not just as a process in which leaders issue instructions to followers, but as a relational phenomenon in which followership is a key element, calling for people to see themselves as followers” (267). When viewing leadership and followership as willing processes, one can deduct that a person can be a leader and a follower at the same time. As will be discussed in future sections, a person can never only be a leader. Everyone acts as a follower at some time. This relationship can best be identified with examples. A governor may lead his state but he must also follow his nation’s governing officials. For one to only be a leader, they would be a supreme or divine being.

Are all leaders deserving of the title “leader”?

In the Harvard Business Journal, Barbara Kellerman makes a simple statement that answers this question nicely, “Scholars should remind us that leadership is not a moral concept” (par. 26). The positive connotation of leadership, which has caused many other issues, is also to blame for people’s unwillingness to consider those who act immorally leaders (Kellerman par. 15). Kellerman reaffirms this when she says, “Some leaders achieve great things by capitalizing on the dark sides of their souls” (par. 19). As Penning puts it, not all leaders are “trustworthy, brave, and generous” and that leaders can be “deceitful, cowardly, and greedy” (par. 3). He even goes as far to say that believing that all leaders are good shows an ignorance to the human condition (Penning par. 3). While some prefer to call immoral leaders manipulators or power wielders, this further distorts the definition and connotation behind the term leader. The official definition of a leader is, “one or more people who selects, equips, trains, and influences one or more follower(s) who have diverse gifts, abilities, and skills and focuses the follower(s) to the organization’s mission and objectives causing the follower(s) to willingly and enthusiastically expend spiritual, emotional, and physical energy in a concerted coordinated effort to achieve the organizational mission and objectives” (Winston and Patterson par. 5). There is no mention of ethics in the definition of leadership because a leader not need be ethical; however, this does bring into question…

What types of leaders are there? What are their differences?

The main types of leaders are ethical, immoral, successful, and unsuccessful. The easiest distinction between leaders is that of successful and unsuccessful. Successful leaders achieve their goals while unsuccessful do not. Unsuccessful leaders include former Michigan governor Rick Snyder. In an effort to save money, Snyder “ordered the state to take over management of… economically insolvent cities” (Rodrick and Atkinson par. 16). In an effort to save money, the state switched Flint’s waterline to the Flint River, which residents referred to as a “historical industrial sewer” (Rodrick and Atkinson par. 12). After switching the pipeline, residents became ill from “fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, plant nutrients, oils, and toxic substances” (“Flint” par. 7). Despite pleas for help, Snyder and other officials still claimed the water was safe to consume. Their failure to listen to the citizens resulted in twelve deaths, numerous hospitalizations, and an uncertain future (“Flint” par. 39, 43). Snyder was an unsuccessful leader as he failed to protect his people. In comparison, a successful leader would be someone like Nelson Mandela. Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, but before he took office he underwent major struggles (Shoemaker par. 2). Shoemaker, the executive chairman of Decision Strategies International said, Mandela “steered secret government meetings towards the abolishment of apartheid and free elections” all while he was imprisoned (par. 2). Nelson Mandela was successful in achieving “non-violent, voluntary transfer of power by a strong minority group to a hostile majority” (Shoemaker par. 12).

It is more difficult to distinguish between ethical and immoral leaders. Ethical leaders act for the good of society and others. They do not put themselves or financial gain first. In contrast, immoral leaders act for their benefit; they disregard others and the impact they have. The difference between these leaders is perceptual. The definition of good or bad or ethical or immoral is a matter of moral longitude. However, most can agree upon the previously stated definitions and the common examples of each type of leader. Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most recognized ethical leaders. Gandhi denounced violence and encouraged his followers to do the same (“Mahatma” par. 1). He was able to accomplish many governmental reforms and was said to “initiate the movements against colonialism, racism, and violence” (“Mahatma” par. 44). Few would dare to argue that Gandhi acted unethically, but it is more difficult to gain consensus on immoral leaders. Despite this difficulty, most people agree that Hitler was an immoral leader. Adolf Hitler was the leader of the “systemic destruction of almost six million European Jews” (Olick and Anderson par. 1). Hitler devised this solution to impurity and did not care what stood in his way of creating a superior race. The difference between Gandhi and Hitler is that Gandhi saved people, he brought them freedom and understanding. Hitler didn’t even give them a burial.

Now what?

Leaders and followers may be equal, but surely not all leaders are equal. The fundamental differences between leader types and how they develop must still be researched. What impacts the type of leaders people become? How does the follower’s perception of a leader impact their action? Furthermore, questions of understanding and action remain. How can we reconstruct the stigmas surrounding leaders and followers? With so many questions and many opinions regarding leadership and followership remaining, there is little left that can be answered accurately.

Works Cited

Alvesson, Mats and Martin Blom. “Less Followership, Less Leadership? An Inquiry Into the Basic But Seemingly Forgotten Downsides of Leadership.” Unplugged Management. EBSCOhost, June 2015. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

“Flint Water Crisis Fact Sheet.” CNN.com. CNN.com, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Hoption, Colette. “Learning and Developing Followership.” Journal of Leadership Education. EBSCOhost, June 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Kellerman, Barbara. “Leadership- Warts and All.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, Jan 2004. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

“Mahatma Gandhi.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2017. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Olick, Jeffrey, and Shannon Latkin Anderson. “The Holocaust.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Pennings, Ray. “Can Bad People Be Good Leaders?” Cardus. Cardus, 1 Apr. 2004. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Rodrick, Stephen and Scott Atkinson. “Who Poisoned Flint, Michigan?” Rolling Stone. EBSCOhost, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Shoemaker, Paul J.H. “Lasting Legacy: Nelson Mandela’s Evolution as a Strategic Leader.” Knowledge at Wharton. University of Pennsylvania, 9 July. 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.

Winston, Bruce and Kathleen Patterson. “An Integrative Definition of Leadership.” International Journal of Leadership Studies. Regent University, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. I like this topic a lot, but I feel like the purpose is missing. Why should we care if leaders or followers are more important? When that gets added, this piece will for sure be strong!


  2. ckoepnick10 says:

    Cant think of much that is missing. It is very well written and talks both sides of the argument. Sides that are all examined with a fine tooth comb. If need be, it would work as a paper to just copy and paste part 3 and 4 together. Ending on those questions in part 4 makes me think of my coaches and teacher who are supposed to be leading me in my endeavors. Great job


  3. schbra17 says:

    You have included all of what seems to be relevant to the discussion of leaders, followers, their importance, and what defines them. I am just a little bit distraught when deciding what exactly your focus is. In both your part III and part IV, you begin by stating the differences between leaders and followers. Then, you move onto talking about whether or not a person can be both at one time. And, finally, you determine what actually defines a leader. It seems like your main focus is on the definition of leaders, so I am not quite seeing how followers tie into this. I agree that they can be mentioned I am just not sure if you are making it a separate position altogether or if it ties into your other position.


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